Here in our hometown of Boulder, the University of Colorado recently made its contribution to NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft by shipping their Remote Sensing package to Lockheed Martin for integration. The package will try and gain some insight into how Mars lost its atmosphere using an Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph (IUVS) and the Remote Sensing Data Processing Unit (RSDPU).
The broad mission of the MAVEN spacecraft is to assess the history of Mars’ atmosphere. This will be the first NASA mission that is entirely dedicated to studying the upper atmosphere of the Martian planet. In the end, researchers hope to uncover Mars’ climatic evolution by assessing how atmospheric gas was lost to space over time.
This remote sensing package is one of three sets of instruments that will be onboard the MAVEN spacecraft. The University of California at Berkeley Space Science Laboratory and NASA Goddard are providing additional instrumentation that will characterize the planet’s ionosphere and the solar wind. The composition and isotopes of neutral ions will be measured by the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer provided by NASA Goddard.
Data collected from MAVEN along with information from the Mars rover, Curiosity, will help to determine if the planet was ever hospitable enough to harbor life, and if so, what happened? There are signs that Mars may have once been a more welcoming and less harsh planet. These include topographic signs like channels carved into the surface that resemble riverbeds, and the detection of minerals that only form in the presence of liquid water.
The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft in low Mars orbit as depicted in an artist’s concept video.
Curiosity is currently testing mineral samples in the Gale Crater, which is believed to have been formed more than three billion years ago, to measure their isotope ratios. These measurements will be compared to the present isotope ratios in the upper atmosphere as measured by MAVEN. This is just one of the many ways that data from the two NASA missions will be used in tandem to better understand the Martian environment and its evolution.